Death Railway survivors want their stories told


  • Focus
  • Tuesday, 02 May 2017

Chandrasegar showing the type of railway goods car that was used by the Japanese to transport prisoners of war to work on the Death Railway.

DEATH Railway survivors and their next of kin want a place in the national history books and a monument for the cause to be built in Kuala Lumpur.

Death Railway Interest Group (DRIG) chairman Chandrasegar Ponnusamy expressed disappointment that not much importance or mention was given to Asians, much less those from then Malaya, although they formed 80% of the workforce.

He discovered this after meetings with Universiti Malaya’s History Department and National Archives.

“I was told they did not have enough documentation of locals who worked and died during the construction,” said Chandrasegar.

Formed in 2013, DRIG has organised three forums to hear the stories of survivors.  

Sasidaran‘s late father, K.N. Sellappah, was a Death Railway survivor.
Sasidaran‘s late father, K.N. Sellappah, was a Death Railway survivor

Most victims were indentured labourers from estates.

Sasidaran Sellappah, 78, whose father worked under Japanese Quarter Master, agreed that the task of documenting the accounts of locals who had worked on the Death Railway would be difficult.

His father supplied food for various labour camps as well as attending to sanitary conditions in Kanchanaburi camp. Subsequently, his father lead a group of workers to construct the rail track near Konyu and until his repatriation in early Jan 1946.

Sasidaran said researchers would need to look at the individual’s citizenship as other Asian nationalities such as the Thais, Burmese and Vietnamese were also involved in the construction of the railway.

They will also have to find ways to verify the story’s authenticity. It would have been easy for researchers if they could access registration records of members from the Former Siam Burma Railway Construction Workers Welfare and Heritage Association. But a 2008 fire at the association headquarters destroyed some 15,000 records that held crucial data of the survivors’ accounts.

Sasidaran pointed out that not all those from Malaya who worked on the Death Railway were forced labourers.

“There were those who went willingly, were paid wages and given proper accommodation,” he said.

One such worker was the father of Francis Tang, 77. In 1942, Tang’s father, a mechanic from Taiping, Perak, answered a newspaper advertisement to work on the Death Railway as it promised good salary plus bonus.

Loke (left) was taken away from his home by the Japanese to work on the Death Railway in Ronshi, Burma. With him are his wife Winnie Kuok and Tang (right), whose family moved to Thailand to work on the Death Railway when he was four.
Loke (left) was taken away from his home by the Japanese to work on the Death Railway in Ronshi, Burma. With him are his wife Winnie Kuok and Tang (right), whose family moved to Thailand to work on the Death Railway when he was four.

The whole family, all seven of them, went to Kanchanaburi, Thailand. After three years, everyone made it back. In between, Tang, then four, remembered his grandmother making trips to Taiping to visit relatives.

“When I tell my story to the other survivors, they find it hard to believe,” said Tang, who now spends his days meeting up with other survivors and their next of kin.

Then there are survivors like Loke Wing Yew, 92, who can still remember the trauma of being forcefully taken away by Japanese soldiers.

They came to his Ampang hometown and together with some other 100 men, he was roughly herded onto a lorry.

Loke was sent to Ronshi, Burma, where he caught dysentery and nearly died. He was only reunited with his family after the war.

“Seventy-five years have passed. I have no more grudges against the Japanese. But I want to share my story so everyone will know our suffering,” said Loke.

At present, a plaque in memory of those who died or suffered inhumane treatment in the Death Railway construction can be found at the Ipoh Railway Station.

In Penang, a small monument built by the Penang Veterans Association beside the Cenotaph in Batu Feringghi remembers those who fell in the Death Railway as well as World War 2, Malayan Emergency, Indonesian Confrontation and the Reinsurgency.


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